An Amateur’s Raid in a World of Specialists?: The Swedish Essay in Contemporary Public Debate
Emma Eldelin: Department of Culture and Communication, Linköping University, Sweden
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Theme: Literary Public Spheres
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The point of departure of this paper is a lecture by Edward Said, in which he claimed it necessary for today’s intellectuals to respond to modern specialization by assuming an attitude of amateurism in public life. It can be argued that there is a historical connection between the public role of the learned amateur and the essay as a form of expression and communication. Among recent advocates of the essay, the decline of this genre in modernity has sometimes been explained by the increasing public confidence in experts and specialists. According to this view, the development of modern society has made it less legitimate for essayists to serve as generalist commentators on society and culture. However, the growing tension between amateurism and professionalism goes back at least to the nineteenth century, and it has marked the ambiguous relation of the essay and the essayist to academia and institutional discourse ever since.

This paper discusses what has become of this public role of essayists in late modernity. Some examples of essayists and essayistic writing of later decades, chiefly from Sweden, serve as illustrations of a general line of argument, even though there are also comparisons between the essay in Sweden and in other countries. Among the examples of Swedish essayists put forward here are Kerstin Ekman and Peter Nilson. The reception of these writers suggests that the essayist, adopting the role as amateur, driven by devotion and interest for the larger picture, might still be a vital part of public culture today. However, it is also clear that writers like Ekman and Nilson have gained at least part of their authority from being acknowledged in other fields or genres – Ekman as a distinguished novelist and Nilson as a trained astronomer.
Keywords: Swedish essay; late modernity; amateur; authority in literature; persona; Kerstin Ekman; Peter Nilson

Volume 2, Theme:: Theme: Literary Public Spheres, Article 27, 2010

Emma Eldelin
An Amateur’s Raid in a World of Specialists?: The Swedish Essay in Contemporary Public Debate
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